Bursting with energy, a healthy amount of cheese and showcasing vocals far superior to what you’d expect outside of the West End, Centre Stage London’s Fame the Musical is head over heels (and a split jump?) better than the trite script underpinning it.
It’s a real delight to see (good) amdram in London. When you’re used to the battle for a 5mm gap on a grey Jubilee line carriage each morning, and neither you or your fellow commuters are interested in even acknowledging each others’ existences, there’s something really reassuring and uplifting about the fact that our city houses a number of thriving micro-communities, united by a relentless committment to producing high quality theatre for the sheer fun of it.
Before the show’s even started and you’re lurking in the foyer catching snippets of excited conversations, it’s instantly clear that these groups are full of super passionate (and, by the looks of it, exceptionally friendly and inclusive) individuals who balance their love for MT around day jobs. And also abundantly clear that these productions are a real community effort. Everyone (grandparents, society old-timers, the milkmen of the techie…) has clearly mucked in to help attach glitter to leg warmers, fairylights to the Statue of Liberty, backs back onto pianos or whatever-the-hell-needs-doing-now. The fact these sort of communities exist in the big city, and not just little hamlets in Staffordshire, is profoundly lovely – and something which I think is often undervalued.
ANYWAY. Fame. Before I talk about Centre Stage London’s version, there’s no two ways around the fact that the musical adaptation – as written by José Fernandez, composed by Steve Margoshes and lyricised by Jacques Levy – is clunky. There’s not a whole lot of plot (people arrive at drama school, sing/dance/play the triangle for a while, fairly abruptly face coming-of-age realisations/problems/DEATH (*lol, spoiler*) and then graduate. The structuring’s also odd: the show plays out as more of a series of vignettes (which give the many characters individual time to shine/belt/RIFF LOTS) than a consistent narrative and this leaves it feeling somewhat disjointed.
None of that is Centre Stage London’s fault, of course. It does mean, though, that it’s a creatively ambitious show to pick – as, obviously, with shoddy material, the team have to work a lot harder than usual (eg. Legally Blonde, perhaps, when the music and lyrics are already bloody good) to make it into anything good. It’s also a logistically ambitious choice: a close-to-10-minute-and-fairly-repetitive opening song can’t be easy to stage, the many characters the show affords limelight to is brilliant for the cast but a pain for the director and rehearsal schedules, and almost every song involves at least one dance break, a fact which must have kept the choreographer up at night.
So props to Centre Stage London for not only tackling it, but tackling it with finesse and vivacity. Their production’s feel-good, a real showcase of superb voices, and gets the balance right between not disrespecting the material but not taking it too seriously either.
The energy onstage is consistently infectious, with the director seeming most at home, I’d say, with the group scenes. The fact the ensemble have each been assigned individual character names is a sweet touch, and indicative of the fact more thought was paid to them than they’re perhaps sometimes offered. This translates onstage – it’s often ensemble members, actually, who steal scenes and demonstrate the most defined and confident stage presences. Abigail Drane grabbed and sustained my attention during every scene she appeared in, and also proved to be one of the best dancers of the night. Vanessa Forte may principally be a dancer (her lines were, admittedly, beautiful) but her mere stage presence had a warmth to it which you rarely even see in West End; another, of a fair few, that I often found myself drawn to rather than what was necessarily going on in the foreground. Credit to the director, also, for consistently using this ensemble to fill an unusually deep stage (something that could have easily become a void) with life. Stuart James’s visible strengths as a director, for me, lie in creating the big stage pictures rather than necessarily tackling individual scenes with nuance – but appreciate that’s difficult when there’s such little nuance in the text he’s been supplied with.
Vocally, the leads are exceptional across the board (I hope they wouldn’t mind me saying that they seemed considerably more at home when singing rather than speaking). Laura Ellis’ voice, in particular, is without doubt as developed and strong as numerous current West End leads – her Think of Meryl Streep is a force to be reckoned with. Trish Butterfield’s Miss Sherman offers the other truly show-stealing musical performance, demonstrating – more than anyone else – the understanding and ability to let a song build up and not give us too much too soon. Glen Jordan (a real-life Tintin?) has the most natural and effortless quality of voice of the night, and although ‘I Want to Make Magic’ is by the far the show’s least interesting song for me (why does it need a reprise, composer?), there’s something infinitely more watchable about Jordan’s performance of it than that of H from Steps (gulp, never again). Glen’s ‘Nick’, along with Samantha Miller’s ‘Iris’ – also offer the strongest acting performances of the night, ironic perhaps when you consider the two characters theyre portraying are very possibly the most bland. Both play their parts with a nuance and ‘realness’ (to use a gross word) that others sometimes lack; they avoid ever swerving on the side of melodrama, which I think the production’s Carmen and Schlomo are occasionally guilty of (even before the former’s descent). A couple of odd directorial decisions, like having Carmen drop to the floor (presumably dead) at the end of ‘In LA’, admittedly don’t help steer Yvette Shiel’s Carmen away from melodrama; maybe I just wasn’t invested in the storyline enough, but the campness of the fall (like something out of a John Waters film) made me involuntarily laugh for a while, and I’m not entirely convinced that’s the effect James is going for.
The lighting design is accomplished, polished and certainly more than you’d expect from amdram. The band are superb, a couple of understandable mic issues for opening night can definitely be overlooked, but the band leader and sound designer respectively just need to be careful they keep an eye on volume during sections when the cast are speaking (otherwise, as happened last night, they’re forced to shout over the music and this kills any achieved ‘reality’ from the scene).
In sum though, Fame the Musical is a triumph for Centre Stage London – both despite, and due to, the fact the musical itself is imperfect. A feel-good, high-energy and accomplished production, showcasing vocals far superior to what you’d expect anywhere outside of the West End. The script tells us that only 10% of them will ever make a living in the arts. I have a feeling the real figure may be higher here. They deserve it.